This is my own personal rule for television episodes, and I’ve never heard anyone else say anything remotely like it – but I think implementing it in all TV drama would improve almost every series no end.
The two episode rule says: never base an episode on a part of your character’s history that you didn’t introduce, or at least hint at, in the first two episodes.
Let me give you an example. One of the great TV plot clichés, particularly in American TV, is that episode where the main character’s estranged father turns up. Yeah, you know the one. Dad appears at the end of the teaser: they don’t get on, they argue for a while, have a big showdown, and then they make up in time for the closing credits.
Those episodes never work. And one of the main reasons (apart from being a cliché, and trying to solve a huge family problem in an unrealistic amount of screen time) is that the main character has invariably never mentioned that they don’t get on with their father. They’ve probably never even mentioned whether their father is alive or dead. The subject has never seemed remotely important before.
And then out of nowhere, the viewers are expected to accept that they have this severely dysfunctional relationship that they never bothered to mention, and which, as far as we can see, has never affected their behaviour or personality in any way.
In contrast, the American supernatural detective series Angel spent nearly four seasons slowly feeding in hints that one of the main characters had been bullied and emotionally abused by his father throughout his childhood, and was still struggling with the after-effects. A line here, a moment there… Emotionally crippled by all this, the character went through some extremely dark times, did some bad things, and ultimately came out a stronger, better person –
And then his father appears for an episode. Can you imagine how powerful that confrontation was? And it works because it’s grounded in what we already know of this character. We know this relationship is important to him, we’ve seen the effect it’s had on his life – and now we’re seeing not a cliched plot-of-the-week, but a make or break moment for someone we care about.
Of course, I’m not saying you can never mention anything that wasn’t established in the first two episodes. With characters as with real people, we discover new things about them all the time. It may take a while to discover that they preferred hockey to netball, or that they hate chocolate, or whatever.
But you’re not likely to want to build an entire episode around them not liking chocolate. What we’re talking about with the two episode rule are the important things – the key character traits, the key relationships, the key desires and dreams. The things about your character that are likely to drive an entire episode, even an entire ongoing plot thread.
And when we say “established” in those first two episodes, that doesn’t mean everything has to be spelled out in capital letters. The “establishing” could be something as simple as making it clear that your female forensic scientist has difficulty forming relationships, and she’s been single for years.
What have you established there? Maybe that she’s mildly autistic – or that she’s too ambitious and devoted to her job to care about love – or that she was raped and is suffering the emotional fallout. Or a thousand and one other things, I expect.
But when you finally write the episode revealing the reason, everyone will subconsciously think, “Of course! That’s why she’s so distant and keeps pushing people away…”
You don’t have to lay it all out on a plate for the audience. In fact, your series will be more effective if you don’t. Keep them curious, keep them interested. But there has to be a character framework there in those first couple of episodes, a set of first impressions; the writer’s gut reactions to the character, almost. They’re what stops you being tempted to make them act out of character, what stops you forcing them to be things they could never be. They’re the ring-fence holding in all the potential this new, unformed character has. And they should all be in those first two episodes.